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Gigantic golf ball or scientific sphere?

Geodesic dome can create lightening

Visible from much of San Ramon's west side, a gigantic golf ball erupts from behind the trees that separate it from Crow Canyon Road and the Iron Horse Trail. To some, it may look like a miniature version of Disney World's Epcot Center but to the scientists that occupy the building five days a week, the golf ball is a major scientific epicenter.

"It's not meant to be a secret but it's hard to explain to people if they're not in the engineering area or electrical engineering area," said Supervising Mechanical Engineer Manny D'Albora, adding that he is often on the receiving end of questions from friends and passers-by.

Built in 1972 as a replacement for a facility in Emeryville, the geodesic dome (one with no internal supports) is a part of Pacific Gas and Electric's applied technology services department and operates as part of the company's technology center. Approximately 50 experiments will be conducted inside the dome each year while over 2,000 will take place in the entire facility.

"The dome is a high voltage electrical testing facility, built in that shape because for the types of testing we're doing you need a big space," said D'Albora. "It can go to very high voltage -- over 700,000 volts."

PG&E uses the facility to test transformers, power lines and other types of electrical equipment that may be malfunctioning or problematic. Scientists and engineers often work in conjunction with state and federal agencies to test energy efficiency and safety. Recently, PG&E tested protective clothing for electric workers and are currently testing new types of automatic switches to help restore power faster after an outage.

"The whole purpose of the facility is to help PG&E and our customers operate efficiently and manage continuing need," D'Albora said.

But on several occasions, the geodesic dome has been used for another purpose: entertaining educational television.

Discovery Channel's "Mythbusters," a program dedicated to confirming or "busting" myths using varied scientific methods, visited the testing facility three times to conduct experiments that required high-voltage electricity.

"It's great to visit a place that looks exactly like you think it should," host Adam Savage said during one visit.

Together with co-host Jamie Hyneman and Kari Byron, the "Mythbusters" crew built a to-scale house complete with wiring and bathroom to test whether someone could be electrocuted while on the phone or in the shower during a thunderstorm.

"We don't specifically do lightening tests (in the dome), but high voltage electric equipment can be used to generate small flashes of what looks like electricity," D'Albora said.

Although a bolt of lightening has 100 million volts of electricity, Savage, Hyneman and Byron used the building's 700,000 volts and half a million watts of electricity to effectively fry their test dummy and confirm the electrocution myth.

"Mythbusters" also used the dome to test the chances of electrocution while wearing golf shoes with plastic and metal spikes as well as Benjamin Franklin's kite experiment.

"The work we do inside the dome is similar to 'Mythbusters' testing because we're doing tests to answer a question," D'Albora said. "Whether it involves mannequins and testing or measurements, it's a very interesting place to work."

Read this story in Views magazine, available for free on Monday, June 27.

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